‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ Is on the Way to the August Wilson House

Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre Company’s Annual Dive Into Wilson’s Work Was Playwright’s Favorite


“When I first met August Willson, I said I liked Joe Turner the best of his plays. He nodded and said he did, too.” 

Playwright Romulus Linney, in a forward to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,
from the “American Century Cycle Box Set”

Mark Clayton Southers has no trouble believing that his mentor and inspiration, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, would have picked Joe Turner’s Come and Gone as a favorite among his plays, each set in a decade of the 20th century, nine set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.

Southers’ Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is bringing the 1911-set Joe Turner home to the Hill August 5-27, in the backyard stage at the August Wilson House. The play also can be seen indoors at PPTC’s Madison Arts Center, in the Upper Hill, for the Sunday, August 13 performance. (The indoor space will also be available in the case of inclement weather.)

The Tony-nominated drama takes place in a Hill District boarding house, where the denizens are gathered at the start of the Great Migration, when African Americans by the thousands escaped the Jim Crow South for a safer but not particularly welcoming North.

Mike Traylor and Kevin Brown prep to rehearse a scene from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Madison Arts Center, Upper Hill. (Image: Sharon Eberson)

Southers believes Joe Turner was Wilson’s favorite play until he wrote Gem of the Ocean nearly 20 years later. Characters in both plays are haunted by the journey through the Middle Passage – that forced ocean voyage of enslaved Africans to North America.

“In both plays, people have visions riffing on that same vibe – the link between slavery and being free,” Southers explained. In Gem, you have Aunt Ester in 1904 and here it is 1911, and in both plays, [Wilson] was really recognizing our ancestors and the lengths that they went through from slavery through the Great Migration.”

Southers noted that, aside from Gem of the Ocean, all Wilson’s 20th-century plays in production after Joe Turner – starting with the 1950s-set Fences – take place in centuries in which Wilson lived. Joe Turner is among his plays “that sit in the imagination of his writing, and it shows,” Southers said, pointing to a character’s un-PC behavior that we may find uncomfortable in the 21st century.

This is Pittsburgh Playwrights’ second time around with Joe Turner, and the second time this year for Southers, who directed the play in February for the Black Theatre Troupe of Phoenix, Arizona. Roosevelt Watts (Shealy in PPTC’s 2022 Jitney) played the mysterious visitor Herald Loomis then, and does so again for the Pittsburgh production. 

Loomis has traveled north to Pittsburgh with his young daughter, Zonia (Saniya Lavelle), and is staying in a boarding house owned by Seth and Bertha Holly (the very busy actor Kevin Brown and Pittsburgh Public Theater’s managing director, Shaunda Miles). “Conjure man” Bynum Walker (Mike Traylor), who practices the art of folk magic and healing, and a young couple, Jeremy (Dionysus Westbrooks) and Mattie (Dominique Briggs), are among residents. The latest arrival is Molly (Jamaica Johnson), who catches Jeremy’s eye just as he and Mattie are getting set to move in together. Cameron Edwards plays neighbor Reuben, and Karla Payne portrays Martha Pentecoast.

As rehearsals began on a stormy day in July, Watts and other cast members were performing a particularly harrowing, physical scene for his character at Madison Arts Center. With dark clouds ready to burst outside, Watts’ Loomis was writhing on the stage, reliving a disturbing dream, with Trayler’s Bynum urging him on. 

Minutes later, calm and collected, Watts said the scene was “my therapy.”

“I think he has a mysterious vibe to him,” Southers said of why Watts makes such a good Loomis. “Emotionally, he is able to take the characters to the depths that that character goes.”

Rhea, with mom Dominique Briggs (right), made her presence felt at a rehearsal for Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. (Image: Mark Southers)

A Detective In the House

Watching intently from the seats, and doted on by cast and crew, was a detective – and she had some questions for the cast. Actress and author Dominique Briggs (Mattie Campbell in the play) had come accompanied by her daughter, Rhea – perhaps you know her from Briggs’ book, “Rhea the Great Detective and the Case of the Missing Mrs. Bearington”? 

Among Rhea’s most urgent questions was, “What is the play about?”While many of us struggled with the answer, stage manager Michele Betts, the quick-thinking person in charge at that moment, had the best answer. “It’s about a man in search of his wife, and he hires a detective to find her,” Bankole said.

That would be Rutherford Selig (Marcus Muzopappa), a peddler and “people finder,” and one of the few white characters in all of Wilson’s plays. Selig comes from a long line of “bringers and finders” – his great-grandfather brought Africans to America to be sold into slavery, his father recaptured escaped slaves, and, at the turn of the 20th century, Selig finds missing Black people for other Black people.

As Rhea asked more questions, one of the best and perhaps definitive answers was that Wilson puts your imagination to work.

The Joe Turner of the title, for example, is a representation of the evils of Jim Crow in the person of a white Southern racist, who kidnaps Black men. He is based on the brother of the Tennessee governor Peter Turney, Joe Turney, who had the responsibility of transporting prisoners to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville. It was said that Turney would round up Black men and take some of them to “convict farms” as laborers – if a Black man went missing when he was in town, it was said, Joe Turney had “come and gone.”

The post-Civil War Reconstruction Era had not changed much of the South in the 1910s, and thus began The Great Migration. Until the 1970s, approximately 6 million African Americans moved to the North, West and Midwest, with emphasis on major industrial cities such as Pittsburgh.

Coming and Going

As Pittsburgh Playwrights gears up to present Joe Turner’s Come and Gone as its annual play from the American Century Cycle, Southers has the future on his mind. The August Wilson House at 1727 Bedford Ave. in the Lower Hill provides a summer home for the plays, and the recently opened, permanent home of the Pittsburgh Playwrights, Madison Arts Center, an alternative destination for the company.

Southers noted that the first time around the horn for Wilson’s Cycle, the plays were done in the order they were produced on Broadway, with the exception of Jitney, which was the first for the playwright but the last produced on Broadway. Another local company with a history of completing the Cycle, Pittsburgh Public Theater, performed Two Trains Running last year. For Playwrights, that means Radio Golf is likely next, in 2024, followed by Two Trains Running to complete the ten 20th-century plays for a second time. Southers also hinted at the possibility of a multiplay August Wilson Festival here in his hometown, but that is just in the talking stages. 

The current season, No. 20 for the company, concludes in October with the premiere of The Bluegrass Mile, written and directed by Southers.

For now, weather permitting, Joe Turner is coming to the backyard stage at the August Wilson House, as his company’s annual recognition of the late, legendary local playwright, whose work continues to inspires conversations, demands that we ask questions and sparks our imaginations.


Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s production of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is at the August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Ave., Lower Hill (alternate site: Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee St.), August 5-27. Tickets are $45, with $40 senior/student tickets. Visit https://www.pghplaywrights.org/.

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1 reply

  1. This ‘preview’ by Sharon Eberson is remarkably jam-packed with solid and brief background and tidbits that capture both Mark Southers, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre and August Wilson’s entwinement so neat and accurately while illuminating Pittsburgh’s role as such a grand architect of its arts. Any astute admirer of August Wilson’s work, and of ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ specifically, should feel a grateful satisfaction and stirring from the heft and generous serving of smart and revealing insights shared in this article. Do read it! (Twice)

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